Thursday, November 03, 2005

Zero hour

It's enough to give Joe Gibbs nightmares

As the Washington Redskins crawled off the field into the Gotham Gloom on Sunday, one number hung over the team like a big, fat full moon: 0. Zero, the number of points the Redskins had been able -- or unable, really -- to score against the Giants. As noted in the Week 8 postmortem, the 36-0 loss was the biggest point-margin defeat ever suffered by a Joe Gibbs-coached team. Even more stunning, it was the first time in Gibbs' head coaching career that his team had ever been shut out in the regular season. (They lost the 1986 NFC Championship game 17-0, but that was the playoffs. Different.) In thirteen and a half years, more than 200 regular season games, the Redskins had always managed to put some points on the board for Coach Gibbs -- before Sunday.

The shutout is a remarkable phenomenon. When the game is over, and there's a big 0 next to your team's name on the scoreboard, the effect is devastating. Zero points? A team starts the game with zero points. A team can finish with zero points without trying. A team is awarded zero points even if it doesn't bother showing up. And really, that's what the shutout means, doesn't it? You had no effect. You didn't show up. It's as if you weren't even there.

The goose egg stands for the purity of futility. Team futility. In baseball, soccer or hockey, the shutout is a badge of individual success -- the product of a pitcher's dominance or a goaltender's resolve. But in football, it's the Scarlet Number of collective failure. Fifty-three men came to this field to play, and when they left, they left behind no trace. If there's any silver lining to being shut out in football, it is this: Because you did nothing worth remembering, what you did will not be remembered.

Think about the now-legendary Chicago Bears in the 1985 postseason. Serious football fans will recall that the Bears allowed zero points in the playoffs en route to the Super Bowl, and serious football fans can remember the exact score of that Super Bowl: Bears 46, Patriots 10. But can they tell you whom the Bears beat in the NFC playoffs? The 49ers, maybe? The Cowboys? You're just guessing. Answer: the Giants (21-0) and Rams (24-0). If these teams were part of such a fabled title run, why have they faded from our memory? Because by virtue of their own ineffectiveness, they never imprinted on our memory in the first place. That big 0 acts as bleach on football history.

This is not the case with victims of other historic blowouts, those teams that managed to put up some points, any points. Whom did the Jacksonville Jaguars demolish 62-7 in the 1999 playoffs? We know that: the Miami Dolphins. Yes, it was Dan Marino's last game, but we'd still remember it even if it hadn't been. Why? Because those 7 points -- that sad, solitary little touchdown amid an avalanche of Jacksonville offense -- at least marks a tiny square of territory in history: The Miami Dolphins were here. We tried and failed, but we did try.

Faced with the prospect of such a Commissar Vanishes-type fate, teams will do anything to avoid a shutout. It's why the Ravens called a timeout with less than two minutes left in Week 1, even though they trailed the Colts by 24. They wanted the ball back. They wanted a chance to show up in the box score, to prove they existed. It's why the 49ers kicked a field goal when down by 28 to the Eagles in Week 2. Though 20 minutes remained in the game, the Niners knew they might not get another chance to score -- and 42-3 is better than 42-0.

The 49ers are a good case study, because they very recently felt the historic sting of the shutout. Last season was by far the worst in the history of the San Francisco franchise: 2-14, with both wins coming against the headless Arizona Cardinals in overtime. But the low point of the year, the unmistakable sign of how far this proud organization had plummeted, came in Week 3 when the 49ers were shut out in Seattle, 34-0. It was the first time San Francisco had been held scoreless in 27 years -- since a 7-0 loss to Atlanta in 1977. Joe Montana was still at Notre Dame in 1977. Steve Young and Jerry Rice were in high school. Alex Smith hadn't even been born. Now imagine you're with the 49ers, and you're returning to the Bay Area after that fiasco. Your fans, accustomed to perennial playoff appearances and perpetual Super Bowl contention, are apoplectic. They want you to know you are the lowest of the low. They want you to never do this to them again. And if you can help it, you won't. Even if it means kicking field goals when down by four touchdowns, by God, you will put points on the board.

Until that game in Seattle, the 49ers had gone longer than any other NFL team without being shut out -- twice as long, in fact. It was a point of pride within the organization, as it should have been. Now the 49ers can start working on another such streak. To break their record, they can't get blanked until 2032.

Speaking of which: Who's working on the longest current streak of not being shut out in the regular season? Funny enough, it's the Vikings and Packers. And of the teams most in danger of getting skunked this year, the Vikings and Packers have to be considered top contenders. Which is why it's important to use this data I've collected while we have the chance! The teams at the top of the following chart have gone the longest without being shut out during the regular season; the teams at the bottom are the ones that have suffered regular season shutouts the most recently.

(Note that this applies only to regular-season shutouts. Two of the top teams on the list have been shut out in the playoffs more recently: the Vikings in 2000 and the Colts in 2002. In keeping with Down and Distance's philosophy that no team should be punished for excelling, we treat the playoffs as a separate animal with separate statistics. The Vikings could have avoided getting shut out in the 2000 NFC title game simply by losing in the semifinal. To punish the Vikes for advancing that far is to essentially reward all those teams who didn't even make the playoffs.)

Listed are the team, year and week of the last time they were shut out, and the opponent who shut them out:

Vikings 19914 at NO 26-0
Packers 19918 CHI 10-0
Broncos 199212at LAR24-0
Colts 199317at NE 38-0
Jets 199517NO 12-0
Giants 199614at PHI24-0
Raiders 199715at KC 30-0
Rams 19987 at MIA14-0
Chargers 19998 at KC 34-0
Titans 19999 at MIA17-0
Bucs 199915at OAK45-0
Seahawks 20001 at MIA23-0
Bengals 200115at BAL16-0
Lions 200116CHI 24-0
Saints 200117SF 38-0
Ravens 20022 TB 25-0
Panthers 20027 at ATL30-0
Bears 200217TB 15-0
Chiefs 200217at OAK24-0
Eagles 20031 TB 17-0
Patriots 20031 at BUF31-0
Cardinals20032 at SEA27-0
Cowboys 200311at NE 12-0
Texans 200314at JAX27-0
Dolphins 200314at NE 12-0
Steelers 200315at NYJ 6-0
Bills 200317at NE 31-0
49ers 20043 at SEA34-0
Falcons 200413at TB 27-0
Browns 200415SD 21-0
Jaguars 200416HOU 21-0
Redskins 20058 at NYG36-0

Why have some teams gone so long without getting goose-egged? Sometimes teams are just built to score, regardless of the opponent. The Vikings' last shutout came the season before Denny Green arrived; the Packers were last shut out in the twilight of the Lindy Infante era. The next year, Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre rolled in to Green Bay. Dumb luck also plays a role. An awful team can blunder its way to a field goal and thus avoid a shutout (see Packers 52, Saints 3 in Week 5), while a strong team can just have one especially bad day after years of avoiding the dreaded 0. Seattle, for instance, lost to the Dolphins, 14-0, in 2000 after having gone eight years without being shut out. Kansas City also went eight years between losing 16-0 to the Rams in 1994 and 17-0 to the Raiders in 2002. Remember the Brady-Bledsoe Bowl that the Bills won 31-0 in 2003? It was the first time in a decade that the Patriots had been shut out.

So clearly, there's more to a team's shutout history than just asking how long it's been since it happened. A more refined question is to ask which teams have been the hardest to shut out. And there are two ways to answer that question. The first way is to simply identify the teams that have been shut out the fewest times. Those teams are the Texans (once) and the Jaguars and Ravens (twice each). But the Texans have been in the league for only three full seasons, the Ravens only nine and the Jaguars only 10. Most teams have been around far, far longer. So that isn't going to work. A better way is to calculate the frequency with which teams have been shut out -- a ratio that we can apply to any club, no matter how long they've been in the league.

First, let's pick a time frame that makes sense. For such comparisons, Down and Distance prefers to look at the Super Bowl era -- that is, the 1966 season until the present. To keep this as simple as possible, we'll count only through the 2004 season. (The Redskins' loss Sunday is the only shutout of 2005 so far.) Most teams have played 592 games in this 39-season span. Nine franchises have played fewer: Saints (578), Bengals (564), Browns (544), Bucs and Seahawks (452 each), Panthers and Jaguars (160 each), Ravens (144) and Texans (48). We take each team's number of games and divide it by the number of times it has been shut out in regular-season play. For example, the Miami Dolphins have played 592 games and have been shut out 14 times: 592 ÷ 14 = 42.3. So the Dolphins have been shut out about once every 42 regular season games.

Using this formula, here are the NFL teams ranked according to shutout frequency. Also provided is each team's total number of shutouts in the Super Bowl era. The teams at the top have been the toughest to shut out. The teams at the bottom have been the easiest to shut out.

Vikings 4 ... or 1 every 148 games
49ers 5 ... or 1 every 118 games
Jaguars 2 ... or 1 every 80 games
Broncos 8 ... or 1 every 74 games
Redskins8 ... or 1 every 74 games
Ravens 2 ... or 1 every 72 games
Rams 9 ... or 1 every 66 games
Raiders 9 ... or 1 every 66 games
Cowboys 10 ... or 1 every 59 games
Chiefs 10 ... or 1 every 59 games
Panthers3 ... or 1 every 53 games
Seahawks9 ... or 1 every 50 games
Giants 12 ... or 1 every 49 games
Texans 1 ... or 1 every 48 games
Packers 13 ... or 1 every 46 games
Steelers13 ... or 1 every 46 games
Dolphins14 ... or 1 every 42 games
Titans 14 ... or 1 every 42 games
Lions 15 ... or 1 every 39 games
Eagles 15 ... or 1 every 39 games
Saints 15 ... or 1 every 38 games
Patriots16 ... or 1 every 37 games
Bengals 16 ... or 1 every 35 games
Jets 18 ... or 1 every 33 games
Browns 17 ... or 1 every 32 games
Cardinals19 ... or 1 every 31 games
Bills 20 ... or 1 every 30 games
Bears 22 ... or 1 every 27 games
Colts 22 ... or 1 every 27 games
Falcons 23 ... or 1 every 26 games
Chargers24 ... or 1 every 25 games
Bucs 24 ... or 1 every 18 games

Dang, look at those poor Buccaneers. Sure, they've been a little groggy since they won the Super Bowl, but they haven't been that bad, have they? No, they haven't -- not recently. In the Bucs' first two years in the league, when they went 2-26 and set the standard for awfulness not only in football but in all pro sports, they were shut out an eye-popping 11 times, more than a third of their games. Cut out those two years, 1976-77, and their shutout ratio hops from 32nd in the league to 27th, or once every 30.6 games.

Of course, as much as Tampa fans would like to pretend those years never happened, they did happen. They're part of franchise history, and if you're going to keep those 50/50 cotton-poly T-shirts that say "Super Bowl XXXVII Champions" in your closet, you've also got to make room for those paper-bag masks with the little eyeholes cut out. That's the way it works. But I am sympathetic to the idea that the bulk of the Bucs' shutouts were in the distant past -- just as more than half of the Chargers' 24 shutouts were concentrated in just one five-year stretch (1973-77) before Air Coryell launched in San Diego. So let's take a closer look at the shutout histories of the 32 NFL teams.

KEY: Total=team's total number of regular season shutouts. Most=most times shut out in a single season. Stretch=longest stretch without being shut out. Worst=biggest shutout loss. Nemesis=the club that has shut out the team most often.

Total: 19 (Home: 2 | Away: 17)
Most: 2 (1991)
Stretch: 6 years, 10 weeks (1996-2002)
Worst: 49-0 (2002, at Chiefs)
Nemesis: Redskins, 5 times

Total: 23 (Home: 4 | Away: 19)
Most: 3 (1974, 1976)
Stretch: 10 years, 1 week (1993-2003)
Worst: 59-0 (1976, at Rams)
Nemesis: Rams, 7 times

Total: 2 (Home: 1 | Away: 1)
Most: 1 (1997, 2002)
Stretch: 4 years, 7 weeks (1997-2002)
Worst: 37-0 (1997, at Steelers)
Nemesis: Buccaneers and Steelers, once each

Total: 20 (Home: 10 | Away: 10)
Most: 4 (1971)
Stretch: 10 years, 3 weeks (1983-93)
Worst: 43-0 (1971, at Colts)
Nemesis: Colts, Dolphins, Patriots, 3 times each
Fun fact: The last team to shut out the Bills: the Patriots, 31-0, in the last game of 2003. The last team to shut out the Patriots: the Bills, 31-0, in the first game of 2003.

Total: 3 (Home: 1 | Away: 2)
Most: 2 (2002)
Stretch: 5 years, 1 week (1997-2002)
Worst: 41-0 (2002, vs. Falcons)
Nemesis: Falcons, 2 times
Fun fact: The Panthers have been shut out three times in their 10-year history. Two of those losses were to the the same team (Atlanta) in the same year ('02).

Total: 22 (Home: 10 | Away: 12)
Most: 3 (1974)
Stretch: 10 years, 2 weeks (1989-2000)
Worst: 47-0 (1977, at Oilers)
Nemesis: 49ers, 5 times
Fun fact: The Bears have been shut out in the regular season five times in the past 23 years -- three times by the 49ers and twice by the Buccaneers. They were shut out an additional time by San Francisco in the playoffs during that span.

Total: 16 (Home: 5 | Away: 11)
Most: 3 (2000, 2001)
Stretch: 8 years (1970-78)
Worst: 37-0 (2000, at Ravens)
Nemesis: Bills, Browns, Ravens, Steelers, 2 times each

Total: 17 (Home: 11 | Away: 6)
Most: 4 (2000)
Stretch: 6 years, 6 weeks (1977-84)
Worst: 48-0 (2000, at Jaguars)
Nemesis: Steelers, 3 times
Fun fact: Sure, the Browns had a stretch of 6 years and 9 weeks without being shut out from 1992-99, but ...

Total: 10 (Home: 3 | Away: 7)
Most: 3 (1989)
Stretch: 15 years, 2 weeks (1970-85)
Worst: 44-0 (1985, vs. Bears)
Nemesis: Eagles, 2 times

Total: 8 (Home: 0 | Away: 8)
Most: 2 (1992)
Stretch: 12 years, 12 weeks (1992-present)
Worst: 51-0 (1967, at Raiders)
Nemesis: Chargers, 2 times
Fun fact: The Broncos and the Vikings are the only teams that have been around for the entire Super Bowl era that have never been shut out at home.

Total: 15 (Home: 10 | Away: 5)
Most: 2 (1978, 2001)
Stretch: 7 years, 6 weeks (1993-2001)
Worst: 45-0 (1991, vs. Redskins)
Nemesis: Vikings, 4 times

Total: 13 (Home: 4 | Away: 9)
Most: 3 (1988)
Stretch: 14 years (1991-present)
Worst: 40-0 (1970, vs. Lions)
Nemesis: Bears, 4 times

Total: 1 (Home: 0 | Away: 1)
Most: 1 (2003)
Stretch: 1 year, 14 weeks (2002-03)
Worst: 27-0 (2003, at Jaguars)
Nemesis: Jaguars, once
Fun fact: See Jacksonville.

Total: 22 (Home: 6 | Away: 16)
Most: 3 (1972, 1992)
Stretch: 11 years, 8 weeks (1993-present)
Worst: 44-0 (1973, at Dolphins)
Nemesis: Dolphins, 6 times

Total: 2 (Home: 1 | Away: 1)
Most: 1 (1995, 2004)
Stretch: 9 years (1995-2004)
Worst: 44-0 (1995, at Lions)
Nemesis: Texans and Lions, once each
Fun fact: Last team to shut out Jacksonville: Houston. Last team to shut out Houston: Jacksonville.

Total: 10 (Home: 3 | Away: 7)
Most: 2 (1984, 1985)
Stretch: 10 years, 9 weeks (1966-76)
Worst: 45-0 (1976, vs Steelers; 1984, at Seahawks)
Nemesis: Rams and Dolphins, 2 times each
Fun fact: The Chiefs have been shut out at home just twice in the past three decades. Both losses were to the then-Los Angeles Rams.

Total: 14 (Home: 3 | Away: 11)
Most: 3 (1967)
Stretch: 10 years, 5 weeks (1987-97)
Worst: 41-0 (1967, at Chiefs; 1997, at Colts)
Nemesis: Patriots, 3 times
Fun fact: The Dolphins haven't been shut out at home in 35 years, since Week 6 in 1970.

Total: 4 (Home: 0 | Away: 4)
Most: 1 (1973, 1980, 1986, 1991)
Stretch: 14 years, 4 weeks (1991-present)
Worst: 27-0 (1973, at Bengals)
Nemesis: Bengals, 2 times
Fun fact: While the Panthers have suffered two of their three shutout losses to a single team, at least it was a team in their division. The Vikings have lost two of their four shutouts to the Bengals, a team that not only isn't in their division, it's not even in their conference.

Total: 16 (Home: 8 | Away: 8)
Most: 3 (1992)
Stretch: 9 years, 4 weeks (1993-2003)
Worst: 52-0 (1972, at Dolphins)
Nemesis: Browns, Colts, Bills, Oilers, 2 times each
Fun fact: See Buffalo.

Total: 15 (Home: 8 | Away: 7)
Most: 2 (1974, 1997)
Stretch: 13 years, 6 weeks (1983-97)
Worst: 40-0 (1973, at 49ers)
Nemesis: 49ers, 5 times
Fun fact: The Saints hadn't been shut out in more than 13 full seasons, then they were blanked in two straight games in 1997: 13-0 to Carolina in Week 8 and 23-0 to San Francisco in Week 9.

Total: 12 (Home: 4 | Away: 8)
Most: 2 (1976, 1996)
Stretch: 12 years, 3 weeks (1980-92)
Worst: 42-0 (1973, at Raiders)
Nemesis: Eagles and Colts, 2 times each

Total: 18 (Home: 8 | Away: 10)
Most: 3 (1977)
Stretch: 9 years, 8 weeks (1995-present)
Worst: 43-0 (1975, vs. Dolphins)
Nemesis: Dolphins, Oilers, Colts, 3 times each
Fun fact: The last four times the Jets have been shut out, it has been the last week of the season: to the Bills, 37-0, in 1989; to the Saints, 20-0, in 1992; to the Oilers, 24-0, in 1995; and to the Saints again, 12-0, in 1995.

Total: 9 (Home: 1 | Away: 8)
Most: 3 (1981)
Stretch: 15 years, 2 weeks (1966-81)
Worst: 37-0 (1986, at Seahwaks)
Nemesis: Broncos, Chiefs, 2 times each
Fun fact: The Raiders went 15 years without being shut out, from 1966-81. Their streak ended with three straight shutout losses in Weeks 4-6 of 1981: 16-0 to the Lions, 17-0 to the Broncos and 27-0 to the Chiefs.

Total: 15 (Home: 6 | Away: 9)
Most: 3 (1998)
Stretch: 6 years, 10 weeks (1977-83)
Worst: 38-0 (1998, vs. Seahawks)
Nemesis: Redskins, 4 times

Total: 13 (Home: 5 | Away: 8)
Most: 3 (1989)
Stretch: 8 years, 3 weeks (1966-74)
Worst: 51-0 (1989, vs. Browns)
Nemesis: Oilers, Seahawks, 2 times each.
Fun fact: In the strike-shortened 1982 season, the Steelers finished with the second-best record in the AFC: 6-3. Two of those three losses were shutouts. Pittsburgh would lose in the first round of the playoffs.

Totals: 9 (Home: 5 | Away: 4)
Most: 2 (1992)
Stretch: 7 years, 10 weeks (1992-2000)
Worst: 32-0 (1981, vs. Giants)
Nemesis: Patriots, 2 times
Fun fact: The Seahawks entered the league the same season as the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay was shut out 11 times in 1976-77, Seattle just once.

Total: 9 (Home: 3 | Away: 6)
Most: 1 (9 times)
Stretch: 7 years 1 week (1998-present)
Worst: 48-0 (1987, at 49ers)
Nemesis: 49ers, 4 times
Fun fact: The Rams have yet to be shut out in St. Louis. All their home shutouts came when the team was still in Los Angeles.

Total: 24 (Home: 9 | Away: 15)
Most: 4 (1976)
Stretch: 7 years, 4 weeks (1992-99)
Worst: 41-0 (1973, vs. Falcons)
Nemesis: Broncos, 6 times
Fun fact: It's a safe bet that the Chargers are the only club to be shut out by the same team in the same stadium by identical scores in consecutive regular season games. They lost at the Raiders, 24-0, in the final game of 1976 and again in the first game of 1977.

Total: 5 (Home: 1 | Away: 4)
Most: 2 (1977)
Stretch: 26 years, 15 weeks (1977-2004)
Worst: 34-0 (2004, at Seahawks)
Nemesis: 5 teams, once each
Fun shutout trivia: Already said all there is to say.

Total: 14 (Home: 4 | Away: 10)
Most: 2 (1969, 1972, 1985)
Stretch: 9 years, 13 weeks (1989-99)
Worst: 44-0 (1970, at Cardinals)
Nemesis: Browns, Patriots, Steelers, Chiefs, 2 times each.
Fun fact: The Titans have never been shut out at home. All the franchise's home shutouts came when they were the Houston Oilers.

Total: 24 (Home: 10 | Away: 14)
Most: 6 (1977)
Stretch: 5 years, 12 weeks (1985-91)
Worst: 45-0 (1999, at Raiders)
Nemesis: Bears, 4 times
Fun fact: There's so much you could say about the 1976-77 Buccaneers. They were shut out six times in a nine-game stretch of 1977, during which they were outscored 144-40, for a POW-R rating of -76.1%. You can't get any worse than that in the modern NFL. You probably can't even get close.

Total: 8 (Home: 6 | Away: 2)
Most: 2 (1980)
Stretch: 7 years, 4 weeks (1971-78)
Worst: 37-0 (2001, at Packers)
Nemesis: Cowboys, 3 times
Fun fact: Most teams get shut out more often on the road. Not the Redskins. They get shut out at home three times as often.

So there you have it. I hope we've all learned a little something about the beauty of nothing.

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